Welcome back for Part 2 of our interview with artisan Kyle Miller.
In Part 1, we discussed Kyle’s experience, growth, and popular style.
This time, we ask Kyle about working in his shop
AA: Welcome back, Kyle. Taking a Norm Abram moment, let’s talk about shop safety, or maybe we should call it “When Tools Attack”. There was an incident in late 2010 which put a slight damper on your construction schedule with the fractured elbow you mentioned last time – what happened, how are you recovered from that now, and what advice on general safety do you have for our readers?
KM: Best piece of advice? SLOW DOWN. Oh, and never work with power tools if your mind is in other places. Sometimes that’s easier said than done of course. I’m usually extremely careful in my shop. Always wear your safety glasses and never wear long sleeves or gloves!
What happened to me actually was a pretty freak accident. I had removed a clamp that I had been using to mount an oscillating spindle sander to a bench in my shop and when I was using the sander later (I forgot to replace the clamp) it vibrated off the edge of the bench. Now, had the piece I been working on been a section of a circle, a simple open curve, I would’ve been fine. However, I was sanding the inside of a closed circle. So, suffice to say when I lost control of the piece it basically became a part of the machine and came at my elbow at about 1600 RPM. Ouch.
AA: Yikes! That’s quite a shop lesson to learn. You recently created a walnut-maple laminated walking stick based on the design of a clock’s minute hand. Not only was the design very creative but the precision work you’ve done is impressive. What were the creative design steps and just how do you get three pieces of wood to match up so well?
KM: Well, I knew that I wanted to make a cane; I guess that was the first step. I felt like I would be kind of limited if I tried to make a “standard” cane, I don’t have a lathe or wood bending setup and I’d essentially I’d be making a custom top only. I wasn’t really satisfied with that, so I started thinking of alternative approaches. The clock hand design was just sort of an epiphany really. I wouldn’t need to do any lathe work, it didn’t have any long sections that are perfectly rounded, and the visual effect would be quite striking and the flat surfaces would make it easy to do multiple shapings with the router. Win, win, win.
Once I had the clock hand in mind, it was just a matter of making up a template (I think I used pine, I still have it and will probably use it for a future cane) and then making a three-piece blank. I decided it would be nice to do a three piece laminate rather than just cut the cane out of 2” walnut stock. Custom three piece laminates are something I have a fair amount of experience with, as I have always made my guitar necks using my own three piece laminates. The only difference is that with the cane I made the laminate in layers rather than on edge, so when I cut the cane shape it would leave a maple pinstripe running through the center of the cane. Walnut and maple have very similar densities (they’re both about +/-40lbs/ft3) so they match well together in a laminate. The colors are also very complimentary and are a common pairing in fine furniture.
AA: The walnut and maple combination is quite striking and works to great effect in that cane. What is your technique for finishing and sealing wood surfaces? The surface seems very smooth and the colors look so rich.
KM: It’s all about the tung oil. Tung oil is my favorite finish, hands down. It takes some practice getting used to, but I’m pretty comfortable with it now and have my own sort of rituals and practices for getting a nice finish. I sand everything up to about 400 grit before I actually do any finishing. Tung oil is very readily absorbed, so it takes a couple pretty generous coats before the wood will stop drawing it in. After the first couple of coats, I start to do wetsanding and continue up to somewhere between 400-800 grit depending on the project. Although sometimes for later stages I’ll use 0000 gauge steel wool. I’ll usually do up to 10 coats of tung oil, more so for guitars, less so for props. Building up a “depth” of finish is key to a good looking end product. And that takes a lot of time, and coats. I think this is something that is often overlooked. A lot of artists tend to opt for a more “distressed” look as well. Perhaps this lends to the perception of my work being very smooth and clean. I figure just because its steampunk, or antiqued, it had to be new sometime, right? That’s what I aim for.
AA: That’s a lot of work in every piece but it certainly makes a difference. What tools are in your workshop? Are you using the basics or are there some specialized tools as well?
KM: My shop is actually specifically setup for instrument and prop building. I work in a very small, hyper-efficient setup that is 120sq/ft only! I prefer not to work with table saws and in my shop it is more versatile and efficient to have a good bandsaw. The entire shop is based around the bandsaw actually, which sits in the exact center of the room. Its a 6ft tall 14” King Industrial that I picked up new about six months ago. Beautiful machine. I keep it running with a silicone coated 3/4” blade. I use it primarily for rough cutting and re-sawing. I also have a 13” planer, a 6 1/8” jointer, a benchtop drill press, a router table (with router), a benchtop Delta 9” bandsaw that I use for metal work and detailed cutting, an oscillating spindle sander, a combination oscillating spindle sander/belt sander, a plunge router, a trim/laminate router and the most amazing 18V Milwaukee cordless drill (the M18). Seriously, you could build a house with that thing. It eats the battery hard but I use it for EVERYTHING. Of course I also have a variety of clamps, jigs, attachments, drill bits, chisels, router bits, etc.
AA: At least everyone will know what replacement items to get you for your birthday! What advice and suggestions do you have about the tools that other steampunks might want to add to their collection?
KM: First piece of advice, and arguably the most important, is that you should be educated on the proper use of your equipment. It’s extremely unsafe for the average person to go out and buy a planer or jointer and just “have at it”. You can really get seriously hurt when using power tools, so, if you’ve never used something before please have someone show you the proper techniques.
Secondly, unless you have a lot of disposable income, make efficient choices. Be willing to spend the money on things you will use the most, but don’t go crazy on stuff that has a limited application. For instance, it’s usually wise to shell out for a good compact 18W cordless drill or bandsaw because you can use it for so many things. There is a lot you can do with just a bandsaw, a cordless drill, and a spindle sander. Hell, I built a guitar using only those three tools.
AA: How interested are your neighbors in what you do? Do they think your work is interesting or do they think you are “interesting”?
KM: I live in a pretty small town, and most of the people in my neighborhood are older and basically keep to themselves. I’m sure they see me carting big planks of walnut into the house all the time, but I think that’s about the end of it. We’re all friendly. I try not to make noise too late.
AA: What do you see as the difference between people who are up-front about the work they sell as significant modifications to an existing product like the NERF Maverick, compared to others who apparently just make outright copies of other peoples work, apply a different color scheme, and pass the work off as their own original creation?
KM: I don’t mind if people are painting up Mavericks and selling them, or painting up welding goggles and selling them, that is totally their prerogative. I’m not impressed by the work though, and if all you do is paint NERF guns I’m probably not going to “like” your fanpage on Facebook. I think it’s totally fine to do that sort of work though, and a lot of people do. It is what it is. It would have to be one hell of a paint job though to make me go “Oh, that’s really cool and original”.
As far as the “copies” go, I know who we’re talking about. There is an “artist” out there, I believe located in England, who is producing resin casts that are blatant rip-offs of other legitimate artists work. It is immediately apparent that this person has slightly modified works by WetaWorkshop and other artists, and then cast resin molds. The weapons are then duplicated and painted and sold on the cheap. The “artist” is unrepentant about this. A lot of people worked long and hard to make these props, and this jag just comes along and steals from them. Terrible. WetaWorkshop specifically is a huge inspiration for me, and they are one of the leaders in the prop making industry. It’s hugely insulting to trivialize their work by making cheap forgeries. Granted, their work is expensive, but it is expensive for a reason. Their works are the sum total of years of experience in model making and design, countless hours and painstaking builds. Sure, not everyone can afford it, but that doesn’t make it ok to rip them off. It is especially not ok to profit from it. The only silver lining here is that the products being shilled by this “artist” are of inferior quality, especially when held up to the originals.
We’ll take a break here in our talk with Kyle Miller.
Join us again for the conclusion in Part 3 where we ask Kyle about his upcoming projects.
Until, then, you can see Kyle’s work on his website, http://www.ThinGypsyThief.com
Click here to read the rest of the interview